A day in the life of a caregiver of a child with autism spectrum disorder can include any number of challenges and stressors. A caregiver might be driving their child to various appointments, advocating for the child’s educational needs, helping their child avoid sensory overload, or dealing with an unexpected tantrum in public. At the end of this long day, they may even be discouraged to find that their child is unable to sleep, keeping the caregiver from getting the rest they need.

Though parents of children with autism face many unique challenges, they are not necessarily doomed to a life of stress. Research has shown that caregivers who engage their support systems and actively solve problems (including their own physical and mental health) experience much less stress than those who disengage or cope in unhealthy ways. It’s no secret that a less-stressed caregiver is much more likely to raise a well-adjusted and less anxious child.

Types of Caregiver Stress

Caregivers of children with autism face stress that can affect their mental, physical, social, and financial wellbeing.

Psychological stress – Meeting the needs of a child with autism can increase a parents’ risk of depression, anxiety, or other kinds of psychological distress. Parents who do not take steps to learn healthy coping strategies and disengage from caring for their mental health are likely to suffer even more stress.

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Physical stress – Chronic stress can make parents of children with autism more vulnerable to cardiovascular, immune system, and gastrointestinal issues. One study found that they are more likely to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and a biomarker known as CRP, which has been linked to a variety of physical illnesses.  Caregivers may also suffer from increased fatigue or struggle with insomnia, especially if their child also struggles with sleep.

Social stress – Much of the general public is uneducated about autism spectrum disorder, and people may blame or shame a parent when they misunderstand a child’s behaviors. This can create a stigma that can lead to parents feeling socially isolated. They might begin to avoid public gatherings or spending time with friends and family. Parents of children with autism may also be more likely to experience marital stress.

Financial stress – Some research has found that parents of children with autism may earn less money or have to work fewer hours than other parents. Caregivers may also face additional expenses such as therapy, medical expenses, and child care that put an additional financial burden on the family. Some parents are even at risk of losing their jobs if they have to frequently take off work to care for their child.

Tips for Coping with Stress

Start with Simple Changes – If you have a child with autism and feel overwhelmed by all of these categories of stress, sometimes starting with the simple changes can make the biggest difference in your overall functioning. This could look like making sure you get enough sleep at night, exercise regularly, and schedule some time for yourself. If these tasks seem unmanageable, you can focus on even smaller changes such as slowing down through your daily routine, drinking more water, or asking for help with simpler tasks. You might be surprised how much of your stress level is within your control, and you may find that caring for yourself has an immediate positive impact on your child’s functioning as well.

Focus on Reality and Not the What Ifs – It’s easy for any parent to become anxiously focused on how their child is developing, but parents of children with autism are at particular risk for excessively worrying about their children and what challenges they may face in the future. If you’re feeling stressed, ask yourself whether you’re focused on the reality-based needs of your child or the future “What ifs.” Asking, “What is my responsibility to my child today and to myself?” can help you direct your focus back to what you can actually control.

Find Reprieve Outside of Work – For many parents of children with autism, work is one of the few places where they can find a break from caring for their child. Ideally, caregivers should have time and spaces outside of work where they can focus on their emotional and physical health, their interests, and other important relationships. Sometimes fear of how their child will adjust to a new caregiver can keep parents from seeking out this support, but giving your child the opportunity to interact with other adults will benefit both you and your child.

Use Your Village – It’s not surprising that research has shown that parents of children with autism who access solid support systems are less likely to experience stress than those who don’t or can’t. Family members and close friends may struggle to understand how they can help, so consider giving them specific tasks when they offer. Caregivers don’t have to be responsible for educating loved ones about autism spectrum disorder—simply point them to resources that can help them learn more. Also, don’t forget that disability organizations, places of worship, schools, and other community organizations may be important additions to your support system.

Engage Professional Help –  Don’t discount the value that professional help can play in managing your stress level. If regularly therapy or counseling isn’t an option, there are still plenty of services you can engage. Make an appointment with your primary care physician to make sure that your physical health is good and there aren’t any complications that are adding to stress. Disability or autism organizations or your local school or hospital can also help connect you to support groups for caregivers of children with autism. Support groups can help you feel heard but also connect you to resources and information that can reduce the stress of parenting.

If you’re a caregiver of a child with autism who’d like to reduce your overall level of stress, you can start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Where are there moments throughout the day where I can slow down, focus my thinking, and prevent fear or stress from taking over?
  • What are some small but significant changes I could make to how I care for my mind and body?
  • Or are there any dysfunctional or unhealthy ways of coping with stress that I need to remove from my routine?
  • What hypothetical worries about my child’s autism get in the way of my staying focused on the present?
  • Whom in my support system have I been quick to overlook or dismiss when my child or myself needs help?
  • Are there any caregiver tasks I can delegate to others to lower my overall stress?
  • What community resources have I overlooked that can help me manage stress, connect me to low-cost or free professional help, or provide support to my child?

Sometimes learning to manage caregiver stress is as simple as paying attention to how you currently manage stress and considering what are healthier, more effective options. It might take a few extra minutes out of your day, but engaging these options can lead to a better life for both you and your child. What steps can you take today to help reduce the stress of caring for a child with autism?

Last Updated: Jan 7, 2019